Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The modern queer thriller soars to previously unforeseen heights in searing, sexually-charged Femme. Based on the short film of the same name, writer/director duo Sam F. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping craft a harrowing revenge tale unlike anything I have ever seen before. After a shocking gay bashing, lust and longing give way to a severely complicated relationship buoyed by tangible chemistry between exceptionally good leads, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and George MacKay. Once its concept drifts out of the saunas of queer subculture and into the harsh light of day, Femme become an aching, deeply conflicted depiction of the scars two humans leave on one another.

Just before taking the stage for the night, drag performer Jules (Stewart-Jarrett)—stage name Aphrodite—locks eyes outside during a smoke break with a blonde bombshell whose impressive physique ripples with tattoos. Jules waves to this man in full drag, but he wanders off, a curious look of interest still etched across his face. Later in the night, Jules heads to a convenience store as Aphrodite. A familiar face wanders in with his mates, uttering the “f” slur under his breath. Jules overhears; when confronted, he claims that the man was checking him out earlier. Embarrassed and instantly furious, Preston (MacKay) follows Jules out into the alleyway, violently smashing his head against the wall, and proceeding to kick and beat Jules senselessly. This whole gay bashing scene at the beginning is incredibly hard to watch. Any member of the LGBTQ+ community will doubtless feel their blood boiling.

Awhile later, Jules has now become something of a recluse. Immersed completely in perfecting his Street Fighter battles, Jules brushes off going out to party with his roommate and best friend, Toby (John McCrea). That bashing has had an obvious effect on Jules. He goes alone to a gay sauna, and when a man makes a move on him, he denies his advances despite the guy claiming to be “nine inches and thick.” Jules is pulled out of his relatively subdued state when he overhears Preston telling off someone else in the sauna for trying to make a move on him. I am not exactly sure I would follow my gay basher out to his car and proceed to get inside, accompanying him back his flat, but this is exactly what Jules does. Preston, a bossy and self-proclaimed thug, orders Jules around, calling him a “good boy” each time he obeys. As Jules quickly observes, Preston’s behavior is wildly different around his mates than when the two of them are alone.

Jules becomes fixated on getting revenge on his attacker, and their earliest scenes together have a breathy intensity wherein it is difficult to gauge how Preston will react. Will Preston recognize Jules as Aphrodite, the drag performer? Preston is so deeply closeted that the tiniest thing may set him off. As Preston showers Jules with extravagant dinners and constant attention, Jules binges “closeted guy exposed” porn, and schemes a way to record Preston in action. Will Preston ever discover the secret, or will Jules expose him before Preston is able? Building tension paves the way for a riveting climax that drives home Femme’s larger themes; the film’s final frame is not one I will soon be able to shake thanks to its moral complexities.

Femme depicts a problematic gay relationship, yet somehow manages to make it one that comes desperately close to actually working. At every turn, it was fascinating to watch the bond twist and evolve. None of this would work without Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and George MacKay—both give magnetic, layered performances, filling their respective characters with vulnerability and a touching tenderness. Sympathy towards Preston was not what I anticipated considering the way Femme opens. MacKay injects a real sense of self, a neediness and longing to find and be loved that lingers just underneath the surface.

Femme manages to be suggestive, borderline pornographic, and sexually explicit. Somehow, it also comes across quite tasteful in its depiction of human connection, only showing what is absolutely necessary between Preston and Jules. I unexpectedly fell in love with both of these characters in spite of their obvious flaws. Femme feels raw and real in a way few LGBT+ films do, while also managing to perhaps epitomize a queer Promising Young Woman. Sam F. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping truly have their hands on magic here. Never underestimate the femme!

Femme screened at 2023’s Berlinale International Film Festival.

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